Spoiler Warning: I’m going to stick to the general themes as much as possible, but this article contains spoilers for Final Fantasy XV.
While most game stories focus on conquering something – you beat the level, the bad guy, your own insecurities – Final Fantasy XV is more complicated. Sure, you struggle to master yourself and the game world, but the themes of brotherhood and belonging are crucial. It’s a buddy story, filled with rich character relationships that exist long before the game loads. But you’re not just gathering up a posse and overcoming fate. It’s more complicated.
Some game writers obscure or lie about the main conflict to create story points and add a veneer of complexity. Take Final Fantasy X as an egregious example. Spira had gotten into a horrible situation and you spend 20 hours angsting toward the solution, only to discover that just about everything you thought you knew about the world was totally wrong. Then you spend the next 20 hours bashing your way to, and through, the real baddie to save the girl and the world.
But in FFXV, the twist comes when you find there is no lie, no magical way to fix everything. Everyone knows the score from the beginning. In my second play-through, I spent a lot of time scrabbling around the corners of the map like a mouse in a Mason jar, trying to find some special weapon or something that would let me get any sort of “good” ending. But it doesn’t exist. No matter how you struggle, you can’t change the main task or Noctis’s fate. The best you can do is a Pyrrhic victory that costs you everything and gives a mere chance for a good outcome for the world afterward.
Without the usual plot twists-and-turns, many complained that the story was too thin and too simple to bear the weight of the gameplay. I agree it is often buried under the onslaught of all that bromance. But I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t disagree about the weight of events in the early game or why the writers chose this set up to say what they wanted to say.
This story doesn’t move forward because of characters’ actions or events; it’s the feelings within and among the characters that drives their actions. Those feelings and connections are the keystone. Tooling around the countryside with your friends is the foundation of the whole story-arc, and each quest and exhilarating chocobo ride becomes a stone in the story's vaulted hall, mortared together with those shared experiences.
Then, after the story's edifice is built, it's all torn down one painful piece at a time. Knowing self-sacrifice underlies each gain and each loss along the way.
King Regis knew since Noctis was a small child that he would be the Chosen King and all that it meant. He had to raise his son knowing that one day the child would need to give his life for the sake of the world’s survival. His choked, "Stand tall, my son," brought tears to my eyes as it evoked my failed attempts to send my own children off into their lives with a smile. How much worse for the King? He couldn’t take his son's place or help him – even his own death wouldn’t spare Regis from being there as it happened. His ghost had to watch, and in turn become part of the power, even as it took his own son’s life.
Fate had an even more exquisite dilemma for Noctis. He’d grown up aware that the price of a Lucian King’s power is his life. It wasn't just the years of a ruler’s vigilant care that streaked gray into his father’s hair and brought a limp to his shuffling step. His father’s life was worn away in order to funnel power to the Shield, the soldiers, and the Walls. FFXV makes no secret that the crystalline power for each warp and sword strike by him and all their troops is pulled directly through his father.
Either he would replace his father and sacrifice everything he wanted from life to power Lucis’s protection from demons and the Empire, or he would pay the price all at once in a short, sharp sacrifice to banish the darkness for good. No matter how it went, he had to suffer through what it took to wear the ring and embrace the power for himself. At times he acts annoyingly adolescent about his lot, but once I realized the direction of the story, I couldn’t begrudge him shaking his fist at Heaven.
Gladio and Ignis grew up with the knowledge. They saw their fathers' support of King Regis, and they were determined to walk with Noctis in the same way. Prompto came in on his own, but still knew the score. Each of them faced their own crossroads where they had to make an explicit choice to go on or give in. Gladio forfeits his king, his own father, and his pride of family position. Ignis loses his sight, and with it his role as Noctis' caretaker. Prompto learns his painful heritage and must figure out how to accept it. Yet they each choose for their own reasons to carry through for the sake of their friend and the world. Mournful resonance echoed through me in memory of helping family and friends to their own ends.
Luna gave up all her duties to the people, any dreams she had of her own prince and happy-ever-afters, and paid the physical price to be the conduit to the gods. The few glimpses of the pain it cost her underscored her struggle. Some players have called her useless, or even fridged, but I don’t see it that way. Without her sacrifices the gods wouldn't have even talked to Noctis, much less helped him. She showed the courage to step into a conflagration and burn herself away over and over again as she advocated for her King and her world. She did it as gladly and willingly as she could, facing down Leviathan’s wrath in the very moment she was brutally murdered. The hero isn’t always the one swinging the sword.
As the journey nears its end, the last few blocks tumble down. The world of Eos is locked in darkness, approaching complete destruction while you’re stuck in the crystal. You have one bitter-sweet night around the campfire to reunite with your traveling companions and then you all walk away from everything you've gained along the way.
The Regalia is lost, along with its symbolism tying Noctis to his father. Insomnia, your city, and the Citadel, your home, are battered shells infested with demons. Noctis gets to take one chosen photo as a token of everyone’s warmth and support, but no matter how leveled you are or how many royal arms you’ve found, he walks up the throne room steps alone to face the final conflict. Win or lose, he doesn’t walk back down.
When dawn breaks for the first time in 10 years, you and the other characters stare at a shattered landscape. The Empire is effectively gone. The remaining Lucian people will have to build new lives and renew their world. As the credits roll your photo album, and Noctis and Luna rest together, you reflect on all you’ve lost and all you’ve gained on this journey.